The chef is key player in a new project designed to mentor and support women entering the culinary industry.
Former Top Chef Champ Stephanie Izard Is Launching a Magazine
Credit: Courtesy Stephanie Izard

The most recent numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show a persistent problem in the upper echelons of the food world: Only 21.4 percent of workers with the title “chef” are women. And while the numbers are slightly better when it comes to restaurant ownership—33 percent of restaurants are majority-owned by women—the imbalance is still significant. While it’s tempting to try to pin the problem on a single, fixable factor, the reasons for this disparity more likely stem from a complicated deeply-ingrained culture that perpetuates both overt sexism and a more subtle, but nevertheless very real, set of expectations engendered by societal pressures and prejudices.

One issue that Stephanie Izard, a 2011 Food & Wine Best New Chef, Top Chef winner and owner of a much-heralded restaurant empire, is taking on is the dearth of female role models. Food & Wine caught up with Izard to talk about her part in the Stacy’s Rise Project, an initiative from Stacy’s Pita Chips that aims to provide scholarships and mentorship to women enrolled in the Culinary Entrepreneurship Program at the International Culinary Center in New York.

“I was thinking about my mentors,” Izard said, “and I’ve never even worked for a female chef, which is sad.”

Given the makeup of most restaurant kitchens, Izard’s experience is likely not unique. And while her work with the Stacy’s Rise Project will provide direct support to new entrepreneurs, it will also tackle broader issues of representation in the food world.

“It’s not just [for] women who want to be executive chefs,” she says. “It’s [for] women who have ideas for all these different paths in the culinary industry. I went to a one-year culinary program and we didn’t have any of that."

The ICC's Culinary Entrepreneurship program is a six-week intensive that "demystifies the start-up process by guiding students through the steps of business planning in an immersive mentoring environment."

"It’s a hugely important part if you want to have your own restaurant,” Izard says. Hands-on experience in the program features activities—such as making a business plan and managing a budget—that are absent from most conventional culinary school courses.

For Izard, the most important results that could come out of the Stacy's Rise Project are relationships. “You don’t just walk up to someone and say ‘I’m gonna be your mentor,’ but I can start a conversation,” she says. “And hopefully I’ll have a strong connection with a couple of those women.”

The mentorships that come out of programs like the Stacy’s Rise Project won’t revolutionize the number of women in the food world overnight—the barriers that helped create those numbers were built over generations. But Izard brings both drive and optimism to the cause.

“I was a swimmer all my life and my coach would tell us about this exam he had to take," she says. "The question was simply ‘Why?’ All these people wrote these long answers—and he just wrote ‘Why not?’ and walked out. That’s how I live my life.”

Apply here for the Stacy’s Rise project before August 4.